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Participants in the Early Literacy Boot Camp. Source: Black Child Development Institute-Denver

“Stories are everywhere!”

Kenneth Grimes, Sr., opened the second of three “Watch Me Succeed!” Literacy Boot Camps at the HOPE Center in Denver with this powerful exclamation. He captivated a large group of young boys and their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and friends with a story that was accompanied with drums and group participation to make a point that stories are, indeed, everywhere. The ability to read those stories is critical. Men led the entire event, from the dinner before story time to the breakout reading sessions at the end of the event when each age group participated in specific literacy activities appropriate for their age.

The event was sponsored by the Black Child Development Institute-Denver. BCDI-Denver long ago adopted early childhood literacy as a key issue to address the literacy gap among Black children. This summer, BCDI-Denver hosted the inaugural Literacy Boot Camp with support from the Denver African American Philanthropists and in partnership with the HOPE Center and many other collaborators. According to Cassandra Johnson, president of the BCDI-Denver, the community requested an early childhood literacy program to inspire and uplift reading among least 75 African American boys.

“The ‘Watch Me Succeed’ program is integral in BCDI-Denver’s mission to advance the quality of life for Black children and their families through education,” said Cassandra Johnson, president of the Black Child Development Institute. “We envision a society that ensures a successful future for all children.”

Inequities Persist

We know from research and experience that reading proficiently by third grade is one of the strongest predictors of a child’s lifelong achievement and is correlated with higher high school graduation rates and low levels of incarceration. This is because by third grade, students must transition from learning to read to reading to learn in order to begin comprehending increasingly difficult concepts and subjects by the fourth grade. Early literacy is also crucial for the success of society as a whole; In fact, 43 percent of those with lowest literacy skills live in poverty.

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Age-specific reading materials at the BCDI literacy event. Source: Black Child Development Institute-Denver

Yet, despite the impact strong reading skills have on students’ futures, inequitable gaps persist across subgroups. In 2015, 21 percent of Black K-3 students have a significant reading deficiency (SRD). While this is down from 22 percent two years prior, it is in stark contrast compared to 9 percent of White students and 11 percent of Asian students with SRDs. The troubling statistics of the literacy gap among Black youth points to the imperative nature of early literacy initiatives.

“To ensure the camp’s success, we incorporated the common learning styles of African American males, conducted a pre-assessment and ensured that reading materials were reflective of the children’s culture,” said Johnson.

The program focused specifically on boys ages 3-8 and male figures in their lives who can be reading mentors. Over 115 boys and their mentors participated in the three-session program that focused on the importance of stories and literacy, with age-specific breakout activities. BCDI-Denver and other partners are discussing hosting a second camp as well as launching a version for girls.

Early Literacy Leadership

Despite being one of the most educated states in the country, Colorado ranks 34th in literacy rates nationally. This sobering statistic is just one reason why programs such as Watch Me Succeed! are invaluable to the development of our children and the growth of our communities. It is also why Colorado Succeeds has long led efforts to improve early literacy in Colorado and championed the Colorado READ Act in 2012.

The READ Act was first implemented in Colorado schools in the 2013-2014 school year. Similar to BCDI-Denver, the READ Act was designed to ensure students read proficiently by the end of third grade. Thanks to the work of Colorado’s dedicated educators and school leaders, the policy continues to deliver results for students. The law created a system of support for early identification of reading difficulties and targeted interventions. For schools and school districts that embrace the READ Act, teachers in kindergarten through third grade administer interim assessments to all children to determine their level of literacy. Students with a SRD are identified and are assessed to determine the areas of improvement. Teachers and sometimes literacy coaches then work directly with parents to develop a READ plan to bring students up to grade level proficiency until they have met reading skill competencies of their current grade level. The emphasis on parent engagement is also reflected in BCDI-Denver’s program, which works with families to develop at-home reading routines to bolster results.

Early Results of the READ Act

Since the READ Act was implemented, the percentage of students with SRDs has decreased 2.7%, according to the state department of education. The results are more significant when applied to the 2013 cohort of first graders who stayed at the same school for two years. In 2013, over 13,000 first grade students were reported as having a SRD. By 2015, under 5,000 were still identified as having a SRD. This is a significant reduction of 54% of students who remained in the same district over three years.

Creating a Culture of Literacy

While early results of the READ Act are promising, this long-term initiative’s work is far from finished. We must continue to foster a culture of literacy in our schools, our communities, and our homes. Programs like “Watch Me Succeed” supercharge the READ Act’s efforts to create this culture by directly engaging families.

Stories are everywhere and all children deserve the skills that allow them to read those stories and ultimately reach their full potential in life. In the words of the ever wise Dr. Seuss, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

By Jamie Trafficanda
Manager of Communications and Programs
Colorado Succeeds